As the Second Vatican Council developed, traditional Catholics in England were distressed because they saw Rome giving up the Old Latin Mass for a vernacular both shallow and shabby. Further, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “This was the Mass for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold. St. Augustine, St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More, Challoner, and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us [at that Mass].” It was a proud tradition, a heroic tradition. And Catholics living in a country where Anglicanism was the official faith and its English liturgy was magnificent in its way, were understandably sensitive to anything that appeared to ignore a Church that had survived much bloodshed and discrimination.
This week, the old Latin High Mass was celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time since 1969, and by an English-speaking American, Archbishop Burke, under a new ruling of Benedict XVI. This week the Vatican also announced new procedures for Anglicans – whole groups of them, it seems from preliminary reports, who are disaffected with gay bishops and other departures from tradition – to become Catholics while retaining some elements of their own tradition. British papers predict thousands of priests will convert.
If you have been following this news only in secular sources, you will get the impression that it’s all a political strategy. The ecclesiologists at National Public Radio, for instance, called it a bold papal move to take the Church in a sharply conservative direction, including the netting of hapless Anglicans. But no Catholic should be so myopic. The proper perspective on this is the whole pilgrimage of God’s people through history. The immediate details are significant, but what is truly important in such matters, as Waugh noted, is whether the Church is giving indications of remaining in living communion with its heroic past and is launching a way forward into the future.
The people who are worried whether the Church is veering right also usually wish that the Church would just go out of business. But Catholicism has survived plenty of trouble, both internal and external, and has shown itself able to outlast whole civilizations and its own worst moments. As Ezra Pound once said, “an institution that survived the picturesqueness of the Borgias has a certain native resilience.” Vatican II was the first time in history that in several ways the Church secularized itself. That left us with many unprecedented problems. But a half century later, the Church still stands for something as Protestants – excepting evangelicals, Pentecostals, and very few others – do not. And we may be in for some surprises.
But it takes boldness. The much ballyhooed “ecumenical dialogue” did not produce much beyond greater friendship among Christian and Jewish denominations. It may still have opened up unsuspected possibilities. About twenty years ago, I was invited to speak at an ecumenical event. Back then, I was much impressed with George Lindbeck of Yale, a Protestant who argued that all the churches (even Catholics) were midway through a large historical arc. Pre-modern churches were authoritarian, modern ones had to deal with people who thought themselves autonomous – until they saw the effects on themselves, their children, and their communities. The church’s challenge Lindbeck argued, was to rediscover how, in modern circumstances, to be authoritative. A little too schematic, perhaps, but even back then the basic direction of things was clear enough. When I presented my own version of this scenario to surprisingly warm agreement, no one responded more enthusiastically than a female Methodist pastor who acutely felt her church’s footlessness.
Benedict will take criticism for his gutsy moves, but he’s playing a masterful hand of new and old cards while preserving the fundamental authority of the Church. Some secular stories said he’s trying to undo what Henry VIII did. Such is the poor education of our young investigative reporters. Henry had his sexual peccadilloes, of course, but gay bishops? gay marriages? the Bible largely ignored, except to sprinkle holy water on the idea of inclusiveness in the church itself? His church would have been the first to “undo” modern Anglicanism. Ironically, it seems only the pope of Rome can do that now, and it confuses journalists who tend only to think in binary oppositions of left and right that maybe a whole other game is being played.
Our late friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus often said that history has many ironies in the fire. You could see how maybe God worked, even in the Enlightenment, he would say, to bring Christian truths about human dignity and freedom back into a Christian world that had mislaid them. It’s more difficult to see what God was doing in letting the “king’s great argument” take England out of the Catholic fold for half a millennium, a defection that guaranteed the survival of the reformation and continues to trouble the unity of the West.
But when several dozen Anglican bishops send inquiries to the Vatican, thousands of priests stand ready, and whole dioceses and parishes my enter into full communion with Rome, it does shows a conservative thread in Western Christianity that many reporting on it don’t like. But it shows perhaps even more importantly what may be a historical pendulum swing – which is never supposed to happen according to progressive history, and a renewed vigor – in the Vatican and among the British Anglicans – that we American Catholics often miss in our brothers and sisters abroad who seem too aware of living in partibus infidelium . The pope is having an astounding effect on all that, Viva Benedetto!